illustration of train tracks with low hills in the background and one of the hills has the outline of an elephant within it

Hills Like White Elephants

by Ernest Hemingway

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What was Hemingway's purpose in writing the story "Hills Like White Elephants?" (For an author's purpose essay.)  Perhaps a universal message/theme the author is trying to get across?

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Hemingway had at least two purposes in writing "Hills Like White Elephants." First, as in all of his writing, he reacted against the ornate writing style of his Victorian and Edwardian predecessors (authors of the pre-World War I era), a style which was characterized by rich and decorative descriptive passages. These authors had attempted to create a full world a reader could enter into and their fiction was similar to the rooms the Victorians so admired: stuffed to the full with bric-a-brac, throw pillows, tassels and ornaments inside houses. These houses also tended to be embellished on the outside with turrets and gingerbread. Hemingway went entirely in the opposite direction, embracing to the full "less is more," and like the modernist architects with their bare geometric buildings, pares away the pretty and the decorative.  In this story, he strips the prose down to its spare, bare-bones essentials, even cutting aways the "he saids" and "she saids"  to reveal the reality of what is going on between a man and a woman. It is a journalistic style, meant to get to heart of what is real in life.

This reality gets us to a second and equally important purpose on Hemingway's part: like most of his generation writing in the 1920s (this story was published in 1927), the first world war had a profoundly disillusioning effect on him: why had such a war, full of waste and carnage, been fought? Life seemed meaningless to this "lost generation" who could not cling to the old ideals and religious values of their elders. Hemingway's purpose was not to hide from the scars caused by the war, but to reveal them. In this story about getting an abortion, his purpose is to show the aimlessness and emptiness of post-war life. 

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In a story titled "Fathers and Sons," Hemingway stated: "If he wrote it he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them." I believe that Hemingway was trying to "get rid" of some bad personal feelings he had about being in a situation with a woman which was similar to that involving Jig and the American in "Hills Like White Elephants." I do not believe he was trying to communicate any "universal message" but that he was trying to create a work of art. A work of art does not have to have a meaning; it is intended to communicate a feeling. There are strong feelings dramatized in Hemingway's story. In particular, we feel great sympathy for the poor girl who wants to keep the baby in her womb but is being pressured to have an abortion. An abortion is an awful thing, regardless of whether one if "pro-life" or "pro-choice." The American loves her and feels compassion for her, but we feel his strong inner conflict. He doesn't want to get tied down with a family. This is certainly not an uncommon conflict between men and women. If not a "universal message," it is a universal situation.


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